The Covid Castaways

It’s a small world, or so they say. But for some, crossing the Atlantic Ocean has become harder than ever. From couples and families to employees and investors, many people have found themselves stranded in the United States, Canada, or France due to restrictions on travel. They are impatiently awaiting the lifting of the U.S. travel ban, announced for "early November."
© Li Zhang

In Florida, Lionel Belda is counting down the days. This businessman from Montauban in Southern France hasn’t seen his children since December 22, 2019 – although he remembers it like it was yesterday. They were at Miami airport; he and his wife had just separated and he was hugging his daughter and two sons before they flew back to France to live with their mother. “I was supposed to see them soon after,” he says. “They were supposed to spend all their school vacations with me, discovering the United States and learning English, but the travel ban put an end to all our plans.”

Lionel Belda’s E-2 Treaty Investor visa is subject to the travel restrictions introduced by the White House. If he left America and entered the Schengen Area (or the United Kingdom or Ireland), he would not be able to come back directly. He would have to spend two weeks in Mexico or another country viewed as “safe” by the U.S.A. But the businessman cannot afford to leave his company for that long. There are National Interest Exceptions (NIEs), but they are granted on a case-by-case basis. “I make hurricane shutters in Florida, but I’m not indispensable,” says the Frenchman. “My NIE request has already been rejected three times.”

The “Double Penalty” for French People in North America

Similar stories have played out all over the United States and Canada. Roland Lescure, the representative for French citizens in North America has received more than 6,000 emails since spring 2020. “This dialogue with French citizens about mobility issues has been the major part of our work since Covid hit,” he says. “French people in North America are subject to a double penalty: They have to deal with both local restrictions and French restrictions when it comes to personal and professional travel.”

In an effort to contain the pandemic, governments reinforced rules for crossing their borders. Last February, Canada introduced an obligatory two-week quarantine (including three days in a hotel) for both citizens and non-citizens. These measures were lifted this summer, followed by a reopening of borders for vaccinated non-essential foreigners. Rachael Hardies, who is from Maryland and moved to Montreal 13 years ago, was able to see her parents again. But her French partner, Jean-Baptiste Gatineau, has still not been able to visit his father, who is suffering from skin cancer, as his passport has expired and appointments at the French consulate are rare.

Meanwhile, the United States adopted a full travel ban, a more “discriminatory” measure according to Roland Lescure. The government suspended the issuing of all non-immigrant visas in June 2020. A small number of exceptions have since been approved, such as J-1 visas used by exchange students and French teachers in dual-language schools in Louisiana and Utah. However, most exceptions are still hard to come by. The French consulate in New York City even warned citizens in an official statement: “French citizens in the United States on an E, H, L, O, or P visa must not travel to France unless they understand that they will be unlikely to be authorized to return to the United States for some time.”

Impossible Appointments at the Embassy

Jean-Philippe V. feels trapped in this situation. Based in Minnesota with his family, he was granted a H-1B temporary work visa almost two years ago, but cannot leave the country until his visa has been stamped by the American embassy in Paris. However, the consular authorities are snowed under with requests and appointments are constantly rescheduled. His appointment, initially planned for last July, was canceled at the last minute and put back to January 2022. “It’s frustrating when your visa is in order, you are allowed to work, but you can’t travel,” says his wife, Vanessa, also a French citizen, with an L-1A visa.

This summer, after two years away, she took the risk of visiting her parents in the Var département in Southern France. She left with her two children but without her husband, and without knowing if she would be able to come back to the United States directly. Her exception request went unanswered despite the efforts of her lawyers and a letter penned by the senator of Minnesota. After rebooking her return flight three times, she decided to quarantine in Cancún, before traveling back to America. To make things worse, Hurricane Grace brought winds of up to 80 miles per hour which knocked out the Wi-Fi and electricity in her hotel in Mexico. “I was finally granted an NIE and we were able to return to Minneapolis, but it’s so unfair that this travel ban forced us to endure such a horrible situation.”

In Paris, American consul Colombia Barrosse is trying to put the situation into perspective. “It’s not a ban on setting foot in America; it is entirely possible to enter the country,” says the diplomat, who took up her post in August. She did however clarify that her service, whose staff have been supplemented by volunteers from the embassy, processes “hundreds and hundreds of requests” every week. “During this incredibly difficult time, in which we are having to deal with a global pandemic, the question we have to ask ourselves is: Do we really need to travel at the moment?”

The Departure Dilemma

Colombia Barrosse, who has been personally affected by the situation, understands the distress felt by those filing requests. She was working in Haiti when she lost her mother last year, and had to wait for six months before being able to return to the United States and make funeral arrangements. Meanwhile, Samuel Dias is tired of waiting. He has been waiting for almost a year for an E-2 visa to manage the restaurant he opened in Miami. His interview at the American embassy in Paris has just been rescheduled for the sixth time, and is now set for March 2022. “I can’t take it anymore,” he says. “I need to look after my investment, but I’m in a deadlock.”

His French business partner is in the U.S.; he married his American girlfriend and is currently waiting for his green card. “But he’s not a robot; he needs a break.” In order to help his friend, Samuel Dias didn’t think twice about traveling to the United States on a tourist visa after quarantining for two weeks in the Dominican Republic (“It’s cheaper than Mexico: 2,500 dollars for an all-inclusive package in a hotel plus 400 dollars for the flight from Punta Cana to Miami”). He is however in a legal gray area as he doesn’t have a work visa: “I give orders but I don’t receive any money.”

The restaurateur has already made this trip four times. The plane tickets, hotels, legal fees, and expenses have cost him more than 35,000 euros in total, leaving him frustrated and angry. “I’m vaccinated, my restaurant makes money, I pay taxes in Florida, but I’m being prevented from growing my business. I might have to sell the restaurant.” There are exceptions made for “a substantial investment in the United States,” but his requests have gone unanswered.

The Agony of Exceptions

“Requesting an NIE is a complex process with no guarantees,” says Sarah Brunet, an immigration expert in Los Angeles. But it’s not impossible. She successfully obtained an authorization for a big-budget movie producer and another for a young girl in the terminal phase of a rare illness who wanted to visit her brother in Texas. “There are humanitarian NIEs and other eligibility criteria that people sometimes forget.”

The French lawyer advises having any request assessed by an NIE specialist (not all lawyers accept such time-consuming cases) and to not despair if the application is refused. However, everyone should be careful about supporting documents (“After being submitted, they are on the record and can be used against you if they are not completely accurate”) and rushed requests. “It’s important to ask the right questions. Could this application be detrimental to any future dealings with the immigration authorities?”

In order to obtain an exception or a visa, some French citizens have decided to appeal to other American embassies outside Paris. This was the strategy employed by Sullivan Fournigault, originally from the Sarthe département, who works as a baker and a pâtissier in New Orleans. Perhaps through a stroke of luck, he was quickly granted a meeting in Brussels and received an H-1B visa and an NIE three days later. He immediately posted the good news to different expat groups on Facebook, where French people looking for answers share their experiences and keep each other updated. “These aren’t always reliable sources,” says Vanessa V. “The lack of information about procedures and waiting times has led to crazy rumors. Even the slightest official communication would be enough to reassure people.”

The Risk of Further Restrictions

Macron and Biden’s meeting at the G7 Summit, followed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Paris last June, gave hope to French citizens living in the United States. “But everything changed with this cursed Delta variant,” says Roland Lescure. The European Union reinstated its restrictions for non-essential American travelers and the White House has overturned its decision to relax the travel ban. “If this situation continues into 2022,” says Vanessa V., “we might move back to France for good.”

“We are doing our best to support French citizens abroad,” says Pascal Confavreux, the spokesperson for the French embassy in Washington. However, “this is a decision made by the American authorities.” Many appeals have been made to the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as to members of Congress. Thanks to these initiatives, French ambassador Philippe Etienne has obtained a number of exceptions, including J-1 visas for French teachers. These have been negotiated with partners such as his European counterpart Stavros Lambrinidis, who expressed his feelings about the situation on Twitter in late August: “The travel ban seriously harms vital economic and human ties, at a time when they’re most needed.”

More than 70% of European adults are fully vaccinated, compared with 54% in the United States – a statistic that exasperates Lionel Belda in Orlando: “The land of freedom is keeping us in shackles.” While he waits to be granted an NIE, the father of three is “working long, long hours to avoid thinking” about the situation, and is sad to be watching his children grow up on a screen. Being separated from family is also weighing heavily on Véronique Guerra, who lives near Antibes and used to visit her daughter and her grandchildren in Arizona every three months. For now, she has to make do with WhatsApp video calls. “I’ve become a digital grandma,” she says. “Without these trips to America giving my life structure, I’m completely lost. This pandemic is hurting me and my family.”

Article published in the October 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.